Behind the strange case of the French email ban

BY ENRIQUE DANS

You may have seen a news item a few days ago reporting that France was banning emails outside of working hours in a bid to protect people’s work-life balance: needless to say, the story was unfounded, and has since been corrected. The ban actually affected a tiny handful of workers, had nothing to do with working hours, and was never going to be enshrined in law, as Axelle Lemaire, the Secretary of State for Digital Affairs later clarified in English on Twitter.

Not that technology hasn’t been blamed for some time now as the main culprit in upsetting our work-life balance: there were plenty of people who backed the supposed French initiative.

But is it true that technology is a threat to workers, that companies use it to keep their employees on the job even when they are at home? There is no shortage of people who are happy to interrupt their personal life to answer “important” emails or phone calls, but surely other factors come into play in determining our working practices.

I can’t think of a more absurd idea than that of a government legislating as to when I can or can’t work. The notion belongs firmly in the distant past of the last century, when the punch clock reigned supreme. If we add to this routine the ability of companies to abuse telecoms so as to be able to reach their workforce at any time, the idea is terrifying.

Such slave-driving companies do exist, and demand the maximum not just from the workforce, but from senior management.

At the same time, there are a growing number of employment sectors where technology now offers enviable flexibility, and that offers working conditions our predecessors could only dream of.

An important part of my day is spent in a classroom, at a certain time, in a certain place. Another part consists of meetings, either in my central-Madrid office, convenient to reach, or online, but generally during working hours. But the other important aspect of my work, preparing classes, the most creative part, can be done any time and anywhere.

Basically, I work when I feel most inspired or when it is convenient. I can travel to my office outside the rush hour, and not at all if I don’t have classes that day. My work-life balance, it has to be said, must be the envy of many people, and means that I can spend more quality time with my family, while being more productive than I ever was when working nine to five. There is no going back.

The upshot is that I work all the time: any spare moment to develop new teaching material, to research, or to write, is taken advantage of, even during my vacations or at the weekend. If the muse inspires me in the middle of the night, I’ll often get up and work, enjoying the peace and quiet and lack of distractions. Extreme? Perhaps, but it works for me.

I have benefitted greatly from this approach. In short, technology allows me to work how I want. If I want to disconnect, I can, but I tend not to. Some people find it hard to understand, especially older people (with a few honorable exceptions). As for my employers: if my evaluations are anything to go by, they are more than happy with my performance.

There are companies that abuse technology and deluge their employees with emails day and night. That doesn’t mean those people are obliged to answer them. I haven’t heard of companies sacking people for not replying to emails sent outside of working hours, except in exceptional circumstances. As said, there will be cases of exploitative companies, but in general, my belief is that the flexibility that technology offers is a far greater benefit than any risk of modern-day slavery.

A work-life balance is essential if we are to be both happy and productive. I doubt that technology actually plays much of a role, and that imbalances are more likely to be caused by other factors related to common sense. There is nothing to be gained by imposing restrictions on technology. Instead, we need to look at our current working practices, which are rooted in the last century. It’s time to put nine-to-five out to pasture. There are better ways to do things, thanks to technology. A great many companies have yet to learn this, but work no longer needs to be a place; technology means that it can instead be an activity.

This article was originally posted on Medium and republished with permission. Enrique Dans is a professor at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain and blogger at enriquedans.com.

Photo via Cross Duck/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)